We spent three days in Kathmandu as part of a two-plus week trip around South Asia. To summarize, some of old temples and sites were pretty neat, the momos were tasty, and the Himalayan views on the flights in and out were amazing. Unfortunately, we found Kathmandu to be a rather filthy and unpleasant place where a developed tourism industry means that many tourist sites are ruined and that one must constantly deal with annoying characters. Below are some trip notes.
Day 1: 12pm arrival into KTM from DAC on Biman (BG); visit Pashupatinath and Boudhanath
Day 3: Visit to Swayambhunath and Old Kathmandu; 5:10pm departure to DEL on Jet (9W)
PLANNING A TRIP TO KTM
We wanted to visit Nepal as part of our South Asia trip. We didn't have time for 2-3 weeks of major trekking to EBC or Annapurna, which is obviously a (the?) highlight of Nepal. We also weren't keen on the idea of doing some shorter trekking, and thought that we'd rather save the best treks for a different time than spend several days on less-impressive treks.
So, we wanted to plan a few days in Nepal on a non-trekking itinerary. Spending the entire time in the KTM valley seemed like the best option. None of the other options seemed appealing. We considered an overnight to Nagarkot, but that seemed like a giant tourist trap for only a small chance to see a good view on a perfect day. We considered Chitwan, but it also seemed like an animal Disneyland and we didn't like what we read about the mistreatment of the animals. We also considered Pokhara, but it seemed like a hassle to reach and another overly touristy destination.
In the end, we didn't think that a great deal of time in Nepal would be appealing, and we decided that two to three days would be enough time for us see the highlights of KTM. We ended up with one full day, and two half-plus days (12pm flight arrival, 5pm flight departure).
I expected our visit to KTM to be fairly rushed, but one full day and two half-plus days turned out to be plenty of time to comfortably see the major tourist sites. Given how unpleasant KTM as a destination, I'm sad to say that we really wouldn't have wanted to spend any more time there than we did.
SITES IN THE KTM VALLEY
- Swayambhunath. This is the "monkey temple." The cute monkeys are the only thing good about the site. Very cute they are. The locals who have ruined the temple? Not so cute. The temple, as well as the 300+ stairs to reach the temple, have been totally destroyed by tourism and the authorities’ obvious decision not to do anything about it. We arrived at 8am-ish, well before tourist hordes start to show up. Yet, the entire platform around the stupa is filled with junk-peddlers offering the usual Chinese-made garbage like t-shirts, magnets, shot glasses, etc. The stupa is so crowded with these junk-peddlers that people can barely walk around. It's absolutely disgraceful that the authorities let these junk-peddlers operate smack in the middle of a supposedly "holy" site. Yet, the authorities have the nerve to levy an outrageous admission fee on foreigners.
- Boudhanath. This is another large Buddhist stupa, and it was marginally more enjoyable than Swayambhunath. We went at dusk at the recommendation of a few message board posters, in the hopes of avoiding the tourist hordes. The temple felt authentic in that many locals come to pace around the stupa at night. However, there were still many tourists at this time -- and the usual touts and junk-peddlers who go along with them. The base of Boudhanath is much larger than that of Swayambhunath, so all the junk-peddling isn't as "in your face" at Boudhanath.
- Pashupatinath. This is the major Hindu pilgrimage temple. Non-Hindus are not allowed inside the temple itself. From the outside, one can get a bit of a glimpse of the temple and the ginormous golden elephant. From the outside, it looked like it would be pretty cool to see up close. Since non-Hindus can't go inside the temple itself, the major "highlight" for Westerners is watching the cremation ghats. The cremation ghats are similar to those in Varanasi, India, but on a smaller scale.
- Aarati at Pashupatinath. This is a Hindu ritual performed at the temple at night (~6:30-7pm), featuring musicians and signing and fire. This doesn't seem to be mentioned in the tour books, and we learned about it thanks to some helpful message board posters. Thankfully, there were hundreds of locals and/or South Asian Hindu tourists / pilgrims, and just one or two other Westerners. For this reason, the Aarari might have been our best "site" experience in KTM.
- Old Kathmandu. We skipped KTM Durbar Square because we'd read that it was in the worst state of the three Durbars Square after the earthquake. We walked around old Kathmandu, and found it pretty unpleasant. The best part is seeing the old temples right in the middle of an active city, but there are just too many tourists -- and the annoying things that cater to them. The Asan Tole market was a good authentic local market, and gets better the more you walk deeper into where the locals shop and away from the tourist traps.
- Patan. Worth a half-day, and well paired with Bhaktapur. Patan's Durbar Square, supposedly in the best shape of the three, is still in pretty bad shape. I'm sure the three Durbars Square would have been very impressive to see before the quake, but the experience today is a bit like seeing Greco-Roman ruins -- the photos don't look great, and you have to use your imagination to fully appreciate the place for what it once was. We arrived in Patan fairly early, by 8:30 or 9am, and started walking around the outer temples following the marked "Heritage Tour" city signs. We didn't really see any other tourists until we hit the main tourist artery -- Golden Temple and Durbar Square. It was nice walking around alone and seeing a living city with these ancient temples harmoniously mixed in with the rest of the city. The Golden Temple and Durbar Square were plagued with the usual tourist nonsense like touts, wannabe tour guides and junk peddlers.
- Bhaktapur. As mentioned above, this is a good afternoon after a morning visit to Patan. We had a bit of temple OD towards the end of the day, and everything started to look a bit the same. Nevertheless, Patan and Bhaktapur are probably both worth a visit to see the contrast between a much smaller town (Patan) and a much bigger town (Bhaktapur) filled with ancient temples. Both have the benefit of having many fewer tourists than old KTM. We got quite off the beaten path by avoiding the main entrance to the city (so we didn't have to pay the fee), which allowed us an enjoyable walk through some totally authentic parts of the town without any of the tourist annoyances. The Durbar Square is quite large and would have been very impressive pre-quake, but it's not in the best shape today. Tachapal Tole, another major landmark, is in good shape. We worked backward and reached Durbar Square towards the very end of the day, and most of the tourists hordes had gone by then but some were left.
A NOTE ON ADMISSION FEES
Admission fees for foreigners at the sites in KTM are, in our opinion, outrageous and confiscatory. Locals pay pennies, and foreigners pay upwards of $10 or $15 for sites. Many third-world countries have discriminatory admission fees for "foreigners," particularly at the best sites, which we find repulsive. (I'm sure others find the practice perfectly acceptable, so to each his own.) But I've only seen this level of foreigner price-gouging at historical in one other country (Turkey).
Thankfully, with a little craftiness, it's fairly easy to avoid paying most of the entry fees. It's ridiculous that the authorities purport to charge $15 to enter the entire city of Bhaktapur. We told the ticket guy that we didn't even care to see the Durbar Square (one was enough after Patan's), and we just wanted to walk around and see local life. He said that the charge is to visit the entire city. Ridiculous. We used maps.me and navigated ourselves to a different point in the city, avoiding the Durbar Square entrance where they were collecting the fees.
In Patan, there's a $10 charge for entering the Durbar Square. They check tickets at two entrances into the square, even though there are about 4 other paths into the square that are just as accessible. So, plenty of people aren't paying and the authorities are arbitrarily charging $10 to those who are unlucky enough to enter the square from two particular paths.
At Pashupatinath, there's a $10 charge for Westerners to visit the outside of a Hindu temple we're not even allowed to enter. But one can walk right in from a spot about 20 feet from where they check for tickets. They also require you to buy a $10 ticket to take the bridge across the river to see the cremation ghats, even though there are two other bridges that run parallel that are a couple minutes’ walk away.
The ease to which one can avoid paying the entry fees might even be intentional price discrimination against those most willing or able to pay. The authorities have to be well aware of the fact that they can't charge everyone to walk around a huge city. We saw plenty of other tourists entering the various sites through these alternative entrances.
Use your own moral compass to decide whether to pay the entry fees or not. It didn't bother our moral compass to avoid these entry fees. Every dollar we spent in Nepal -- other than on the visa -- went directly into the local economy. I'm sure the entry fees are going straight to the notoriously government and not to any restoration work. To each his own.
FLIGHTS IN AND OUT OF KTM
The views of the Himalayas on the DAC-KTM and KTM-DEL flights are mind boggling. We didn't pay $200/pp for the scenic Everest flight so I can't compare first-hand, but I suspect that a commercial flight in or out of KTM may be almost as good. The mountain views on DAC-KTM lasted for about 15 minutes, and we had amazing views for a good 45 minutes straight on KTM-DEL.
Figure out which is the better side of the plane to sit on (the right side on both of our flights), and request a window seat.
VISA & ARRIVAL
We received 15-day visas on arrival for $25/pp.
To save time and hassle at the airport, we completed our VOA application online at the following link: http://www.nepalimmigration.gov.np/page/visa . Using this link, we type in data and uploaded our photographs and passport data pages. We were given a bar code and confirmation page, and getting the VOA went smoothly with this.
Note that the bar code is only good for 15 days, so you’ll need to wait to complete the online form shortly before you plan to enter Nepal.
WHERE TO STAY
For a short stay in KTM, positioning yourself in a convenient location is very important given the horrible traffic in the city. Thamel is the major tourist area full of hotels, Western food, bars, smelly backpackers, etc. Thamel seemed like an absolute hellhole to us, and we wanted to avoid it.
We ultimately decided to stay near Pashupatinath, the major Hindu temple, which is very near the airport. We felt this would be very convenient for maximizing our sightseeing time on our arrival and departure days, so that we could arrive and drop off our luggage and quickly explore the city, and vice versa on our last day. Some very helpful message board posters helped us figure our where to stay given our schedule, and staying near Pashupatinath turned out to be a great plan. Thamel in person seemed exactly like we thought it would be, and we’re very glad to have avoided it.
We stayed at the Hotel Temple Inn. It was great for a 3* type of place, and was only $35/night including breakfast. The place was quite clean and the room was cute. The staff were very friendly, and even let us check out at 3:15pm on our last day gratis. The breakfast was vegetarian Indian food (the place caters to Indians due to the proximity to the Hindu temple) and was really amazing.
Booking with Temple Inn was a major hassle, but turned out to be worth the trouble. The hotel had very good reviews on TripAdvisor, but did not respond to several emails. I eventually called them using my Skype credits, and it took 3 calls to finally speak to the manager to make our booking. I guess they aren’t used to dealing with Western tourists.
GETTING AROUND KTM
Short of hiring a private driver/guide, sleazeball taxis and tuk-tuks are unfortunately the only way of getting around KTM. Unfortunately, Uber and other ridesharing apps -- which are a lifesaver for avoiding said sleazeball taxi drivers -- have made it to the rest of the subcontinent, but not Nepal.
Used to gullible Westerners, these drivers will see a white person and start salivating at the outrageous fare that they're going to charge you. Locals pay by meter, but the drivers will never turn on the meter for a Westerner. So, you must ruthlessly negotiate with them and quickly move on to the next taxi if one driver is being unreasonable.
I found the "typical prices" that I read on the various forums to be very high -- generally double or more than I was able to negotiate. Our hotel also told us prices that seemed too high. After a couple rides, you'll get a sense of the economics. As a Westerner, your ability to negotiate a good fare depends more on supply and demand than anything else; the fewer gullible tourists nearby who the driver can totally rip off, the better you'll do.
I'd like to think I'm pretty good at negotiating taxis in third world countries without getting ripped off; there is no doubt that we had to pay well more than the "local" price but I'm pretty confident that we generally paid well less than most tourists had to pay. Here are the prices we paid (in rupees):
- Pashupatinath to/from Boudhanath - 200, 150
- Pashupatinath to Patan - 300
- Patan to Bhaktapur - 550
- Bhaktapur to Pashupatinath - 400
- Pashupatinath to Swayambhunath - 300
- Swayambhunath to Old KTM - 225
- Old KTM to Pashupatinath - 300
Also, not unlike many places in the world, taxi drivers in KTM are among the most dishonest and sleazy people you'll find in the city. Even after negotiating a fare and getting into the car, these drivers will try to extract more money out of you with the usual BS like "many traffic" or "place very far," as if they didn't know "place very far" when we told them the destination and they agreed to the fare. Nepalese are by no means a hot-headed or aggressive bunch, so even the sleazy taxi drivers will eventually back down if you don’t given in to their shenanigans.
We thought the Nepalese food was great, and ate all our meals at street food / quick eats type of places. Naturally, we ate a ton of momo in our three days. Momo is served with a spicy chili sauce, which is a great add-on. We also had some good spicy noodle soups. Dishes were very cheap -- in the range of 50 cents to a dollar.
We had no sickness issues with the food but took the usual precautions (only popular places, nothing raw, no tap water or ice, etc). At quick eats places, the locals drink out of a communal water pitcher and (attempt to?) waterfall the water into their mouths without touching the pitcher. This was both amusing and gross to watch.
POLLUTION IN KTM
The air pollution in KTM is atrocious. Way worse than Dhaka or Beijing or India, in my opinion. It was probably the worst I've seen anywhere, in ~90 countries. We read about the pollution and thought other tourists were exaggerating, and that it wouldn't be so bad for us because we already live in smoggy LA. But no, in KTM, you absolutely need to wear a respirator at all times when you're in traffic. Our respirators were pitch black after the first day.
The roads in KTM are in terrible condition, even by third-world standards, in major and central areas of the city. Traffic is an absolute nightmare. Tuk tuks, motorcycles and cars are emitting nastiness, and the dusty roads are spitting up even more nastiness.
Trash is everywhere. Other than inside a restaurant or tourist site, you generally can't even find a trash can.
I'd read that KTM had a stray dog problem. We found the dogs to be very docile and cute, and didn't encounter a single scary dog.
CONCLUSIONS / OVERALL IMPRESSIONS OF KTM
It's not Nepal's fault, but the earthquake has reduced the beauty of many of KTM's best tourist sites. It's still nice to see these sites and imagine what they once were, and it's neat that these many ancient temples are integral parts of a living, active city.
However, mass tourism has largely ruined KTM's most impressive tourist sites. The authorities have clearly done a terrible job at maintaining the integrity of these sites, and instead, have turned them into carnivals by encouraging the junk-peddlers, scammers, touts, etc.
Mass tourism also makes it very hard to have meaningful interactions with the locals, who seemed to almost always see us as walking dollar signs. Disappointingly, we had pretty much no interaction with any local who wasn't selling us something or trying to sell us something.
With an extended amount of time in the KTM valley, perhaps one could have gotten more off the beaten path and had more genuine interactions with the locals. But my hunch is that KTM is so poor and has reached a critical mass of tourism where almost everyone is pre-programmed to see dollar signs any time they see a white person.
I suppose one may think that we're expecting too much by flying in and out of KTM in three days and that we're part of the problem. But not all countries are the same. Other major cities -- such as Dhaka and Lahore, speaking of South Asia alone -- offer great opportunities for real, honest interactions with the locals even for a short stay in the country. KTM just isn't such a place where you'll get that.
For this reason, we don't have any intention of returning to KTM unless we decide to do some major trekking. Nepal is easily our least favorite destination in the subcontinent, having also visited India (twice), Bangladesh and Pakistan. We don't in any way regret visiting Nepal; we're happy for the things we liked (some of the sites, the momos, the mountain views) and we are happy that we are fortunate enough to even have the opportunity to experience Nepal and have an opinion of it. We're just glad we didn't stay for much longer.
If you're not trekking and are interested in visiting KTM because you think the ancient sites look cool or because you've traveled a lot and want to see what Nepal is like or because you just want to check another country your list, don't let anything in this report dissuade you from going. Do your own homework, research what you think you'll like and dislike, read what other people have to say (and assess the credibility of their reports). And go to Nepal -- with tempered expectations.